Leigh Anne Touhy may be best known as the real-life mom who inspired the best-selling novel “The Blind Side” by Michael Lewis that led to the 2009 movie of the same name, in which she was portrayed by Sandra Bullock, but this energetic, strong-willed woman is also an author, interior designer, business woman, philanthropist and highly sought-after inspirational speaker.
She will bring her message to the Junior League of Cedar Rapids Fostering Strength fundraiser at 6 p.m. Saturday at The Hotel at Kirkwood. She hopes to inspire others to get out of their comfort zone, take a risk and become a foster and adoptive parent to one of the many children in need of a loving family and forever home.
“We have a very flawed system in this country,” she says. “The resources, sadly, are not what we need and we have kids aging out of foster care every single day with no security net, safety system or future or family. All they want is someone to care about them. The worst part about it is that it is a manageable number.”
The event is a fundraiser for Junior League’s Bridging the G.A.P. (Guide, Advocate, Provide) project, which focuses on filling unmet needs for the area’s foster teens, including providing resources and supplies when they age out of the system. Last year Fostering Strength featured author Vanessa Diffenbaugh whose novel, “The Language of Flowers,” tells the story a young woman who grew up in the foster care system.
Tuohy says God led her and her husband, Sean, to turn their car around one day and take a homeless Michael Oher into their family as a teenager and, ultimately, adopting him. She hopes others will be inspired to do the same.
“Right now there are 400,000-plus kids in the foster care system and we have more faith-based organizations in the country than that. If every faith-based organization would take one child, follow up with them and put them in a loving home, we would wipe out the need for the foster care system in this country.
“It sounds so simple and we tend to take the easiest things and make them into the most difficult in this country and I just don’t know why.”
In Iowa there are about 6,000 children in foster care and 2,154 licensed foster care families. Last year, 1,026 children were adopted from Iowa’s foster care system.
Tuohy, tough-as-nails and not afraid to speak her mind or take risks, encourages others to follow her lead.
“There’s always challenges,” she says. “Everybody takes risks everyday, it’s what you choose to take a risk on.”
“There’s always risks that you have to take. It’s one of those where it’s five steps up and four steps back. It’s like that with everything you do whether it’s your educational process, your marriage, parenting. It’s tough in all those arenas. Why people expect foster care and the adoption world to be any different is confusing to me, ‘cause it’s the same with everything else. It’s difficult and you have to work at it.”
Still, she notes, “It’s very rewarding. It’s well worth what you have to do.”
In addition to public speaking, Tuohy runs an interior design firm “Flair I” with her mother and worked as a member of the design team for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Season 8.” She is now completing a two-year reality series called “Family Addition with Leigh Anne Tuohy” where she travels around the country and helps foster/adoptive families while redesigning their home to make room for the new family member.
In 2010, she and her husband, Sean, wrote “In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving” with Sally Jenkins to share, in their own words, their journey in adoption. The couple also run the Making it Happen Foundation, for children in need.
Tuohy hopes her latest novel — “Making it Happen: Just Turn Around” — inspires those who read it.
“I hope people will pick it up, read a page every day and say, I can face the world,” she says.
She’s mulling over another book geared toward children about the fact that families do not have to match.
That conversation also involves confronting racism head on.
“We’ve got to get to kids early. It’s a cycle. Racism is alive and well. I see it every day,” she says. “It’s gotten better, but it hasn’t gotten to the level that we want to cheer about. We’re not ready to have a parade.”
Of course, her most prized role is mother to three grown children — Collins, Sean Jr., who they call S.J., and, of course, NFL player Micheal Oher, who wrote his own memoir with Don Yaeger, “I Beat the Odds.”
All of Tuohy’s projectscome back to the same message — family and finding forever homes for the children who need one.
“This is what I’m doing. This is what I’m going to keep talking about ... These kids are lingering in this system and we’re not going to stop talking about it until every single one of them have a forever family.”
It’s been five years since “The Blind Side” hit movie screens, but the film, which details the whirlwind changes in their lives that the Tuohy family experienced as they added foster son Michael Oher to their family continues to resonate with people, Tuohy believes, because they want to help as well.
Oher, who played football at the University of Mississippi, went on to play on the Super Bowl winning Baltimore Ravens. His family was there to cheer him on. He is now with the Tennessee Titans.
“You may not be able to go out and adopt a 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound African American young man. That’s not for everybody, but everybody can do something.
“If you can’t become the foster parent, you can partner with them, hold their hand, hold them up when they need it, provide, mentor, tutor, suggest it to a friend, drive them somewhere. The list is endless,” she says.
“Innately we are a country of givers, we are good people. We want to make a difference. We want to do the right thing. I just don’t know exactly why we’ve become such chickens ... I tell people all the time, nothing exciting happens to you in your comfort zone. Nothing.”
Tuohy knows that for every child that is helped, there are many others who don’t have that kind of safety net.
“How do we continue to let the Michael Oher’s of the world continue to fall through the cracks every single day? It’s mind-boggling to me.”